Flying archaeologist Ben Robinson tells his story of life in the sky

Now he has a new book called England’s Villages - An Extraordinary Journey Through Time

Now he has a new book called England’s Villages - An Extraordinary Journey Through Time - Credit: BEN ROBINSON

A fascination with the past and a love of flying combined for Ben Robinson to create his role as television’s Flying Archaeologist.

Ben, from Huntingdon, can be found at the controls of a microlight aircraft filming the landscape to discover features from the past which help to shape the present look of our communities and on into the future.

Ben Robinson at the controls of his microlight.

Ben Robinson at the controls of his microlight. - Credit: BEN ROBINSON

Now he has a new book called England’s Villages - An Extraordinary Journey Through Time, and a new television series Villages by the Sea is about to be aired on BBC2, starting on November 8.

Ben, who works for Historic England and has a PhD from the University of York, grew up in Sutton, near Earith, where he developed an interest in the village’s history, including exploring the old Second World War airfield.

A photograph of Alconbury from the air.

A photograph of Alconbury from the air. - Credit: BEN ROBINSON

“I had always been interested in the history of the village and especially from my grandparents about how life used to be working in the fens and the changes over their lifetimes,” he said.

“As a teenager I had also been interested in flying and joined the air cadets. I remember spending more time looking out over the side at the landscape than flying the aeroplane and was a bit worried when the instructor said I could go solo.”

An image of Woodhurst, near Huntingdon, from Ben's microlight.

An image of Woodhurst, near Huntingdon, from Ben's microlight. - Credit: BEN ROBINSON

Ben took up flying microlights which he has developed into a new form of archaeology, one of only a handful of archaeologists to use the technique.

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“It has made a change from traditional archaeology close to the ground. I love it when I get up to 2,000 feet when you can see things in the fields which show the area’s history,” he said.

Ben, who now heads a team involved in saving threatened historic buildings, monuments and places, explained how the landscape could show how and why communities were formed many centuries ago, through to today’s new buildings.

He then began to get involved in television and radio work, becoming known as The Flying Archaeologist from a BBC Four series in 2013.

Ben has since co-presented three series of Channel 4’s Britain’s Most Historic Towns with Prof Alice Roberts, presented 2019’s BBC series Pubs, Ponds and Power: The Story of the Village, and Villages by the Sea was shown on BBC2 last year.

A common strand in his work is how present day landscapes evolve from the past and help shape the future.

This continues with the new book England’s Villages, published by Bonnier Books UK/Blink Publishing, in which Ben takes a look at villages across the country from pre-history onwards, explaining how they developed, survived and thrived over the centuries, together with features like pubs and village halls and village names.

Ben said Kimbolton was an example of early town planning - Norman-style - and the redevelopment of Alconbury airfield as Alconbury Weald and the construction of nearby Cambourne and Northstowe showed how the village concept continued.

He said England’s Villages drew on communities from Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire and that he had used images of some local buildings as chapter headings which he hoped readers would be able to identify.

The new series of Villages by the Sea looks at half a dozen communities around the country, versions of which have been aired in the BBC’s respective regions and on iPlayer.

Villages include Thorpeness in Suffolk, a pioneering holiday resort built between 1911 and the 1930s and aimed at the well-heeled. Peter Pan author J M Barrie was involved in the project.

“It is like a cross between Centre Parcs and Disneyland for a particular type of customer,” Ben said.

Ben thinks the use of cheap drones equipped with broadcast-quality cameras have a place in his kind of work but will not replace the true eye in the sky of an aircraft and archaeologist.

But he believes that pictures taken from the earliest days of aerial photography more than a century ago will have a growing role in understanding archaeology, especially as many of the thousands of images are now being shared online. 

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